Tax agent Ramin Salari appears before the Los Angeles County Assessment… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )
Dozens of wealthy homeowners who got large, improper tax breaks from a rogue county employee in recent years had one thing in common: They had hired a consultant at the center of an influence-peddling investigation roiling the Los Angeles County assessor's office.
Clients of the tax agent, Ramin Salari, dominate a list of 125 property owners in Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Pacific Palisades and other Westside communities who benefited from the actions of a former property appraiser who without approval wiped more than $56 million in taxable value from the county tax roll.
That list has caught the attention of prosectors who are examining the personal and financial relationship between Salari and county Assessor John Noguez. The assessor won election in 2010 with generous contributions from Salari, his clients and his immediate family members.
According to a Times analysis of county records, Salari represented more than twice as many homeowners on the list as any other tax agent. Those agents are intermediaries who negotiate lower tax bills for property owners.
"He was the guy," said Keyvan Rahbar, whose Pacific Palisades home dropped from $4.6 million to $3.5 million in assessed value after hiring Salari, records show.
County officials have said that the former appraiser resigned last year to avoid being fired and secretly helped Salari's clients and others significantly lower their tax bills.
The former employee, Scott Schenter, allegedly manipulated the files between 2008 and 2010. County records show that at least 55 of the property owners had hired tax agents; of those, at least 29 employed Salari.
Schenter told county officials he was approached by property owners and their representatives to lower the values, assessor records show. He also said he didn't seek approval from his superiors, as county rules require, because he knew he wouldn't get it, according to the records.
Schenter did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Noguez, who worked for more than two decades as a county appraiser before winning the agency's top job, said he has no idea what motivated his former colleague to allegedly doctor the tax rolls. Noguez allowed Schenter to resign in January 2011, then sent letters to most of the property owners saying an error had been made and that their tax bills would go back up.
Noguez didn't send letters if his staff determined that the changes, although unauthorized, reflected the property's actual market value or were within 5% of market value.
About four months after Schenter's departure, Noguez notified the county district attorney's office of Schenter's actions. But by then, prosecutors had begun their own investigation.
Salari has declined repeated requests for interviews since a prosecutor confirmed last month that he is a subject of the ongoing inquiry.
Asked at a public event Wednesday in the L.A. County Hall of Administration whether he knows Schenter, Salari said, "No comment." Asked whether he offered Schenter any reward for helping his clients, Salari smiled and turned away from a pair of Times reporters.
The allegations of impropriety have played a role in several sudden departures from county government.
Last month, a former special assistant to Noguez said he resigned because he believed Salari had improper influence at the assessor's office.
On Wednesday, Noguez's recently appointed chief of staff, Christopher Carlos, abruptly announced his resignation too. There was no official explanation, but a source with knowledge of Carlos' reasons said he quit over concerns about Noguez's relationship with Salari and "possibly inappropriate interactions" between Noguez and Schenter.
In an interview with The Times in February, Noguez said he might have asked Schenter to solicit campaign contributions from his friends. "When I'm in campaign mode, I do that to everyone," Noguez said. He denied any wrongdoing.
Schenter gave $1,000 to Noguez's campaign, county records show. At least half a dozen of the property owners who received lowered assessments donated too.
Farrah Soleimani and her husband, Mark Weinstein, contributed $3,000. Schenter reduced the value of their Marina del Rey condo from $1.8 million to $950,000, county records show, temporarily cutting the couple's annual tax bill roughly $10,000.
"I'm sure John [Noguez] had nothing to do with it," said Soleimani, adding that Noguez was an old friend of her husband's and had attended their wedding. "Nothing was reduced that much, so nothing seemed fishy," she said.
Rouhollah Esmailzadeh gave $1,000. His 12,000-square-foot Brentwood home dropped from $9.2 million to $6 million in assessed valuation, lowering his annual property tax bill an estimated $40,000.
A.J. Esmailzadeh, a family member who answered the phone at the Oakmont Drive estate last week, acknowledged hiring Salari to negotiate property tax reductions in the past. He wasn't sure, however, whether Salari had handled the case of the family home.
But he said he was certain of one thing. "I know for a fact that we didn't do anything like pay off someone."
Times staff writer Ruben Vives contributed to this report.